There is a scene in David Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood where protagonist Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) visits a former client of psychologist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed). Sweating, raving and pacing, the neurotic patient eventually removes his scarf to reveal the monstrous results of his treatment: a fungus-like growth of flesh protruding from his neck. He is one of several victims of Raglan’s experimentations in ‘psychoplasmics’, the ‘ultimate therapy’ in which patients are encouraged to articulate repressed traumas through their physical body. ‘Raglan encouraged my body to revolt against me,’ the patient proclaims to a horrified Carveth. ‘I have a small revolution on my hands, and I’m not putting it down very successfully.’
The Brood may have been made at the height of the Canadian director’s body-horror phase, but it is Raglan who most closely resembles the psychoanalysts Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) of his latest offering, A Dangerous Method (2011). Once known as the ‘Baron of Blood’, Cronenberg has, in recent years, forsaken guts and gore for psychological maladies. Yet there remain several interlinked, persistent concerns in his oeuvre: the notion that human beings are inherently perverse; that monstrosity of the body is inseparable from monstrosity of the mind; and that the flesh is ultimately corruptible, the human body only ever one mad doctor away from its own destruction.
Epitomising the figure of the true auteur, it is difficult to view a new Cronenberg film without situating it in his expansive body of work. In a career spanning four decades, he has returned to the same ideas in over 20 films. (Mark Irwin, Cronenberg’s Director of Photography from 1979–1988, famously said that Cronenberg made the same movie every time.) These days, Cronenberg’s films are a genre in their own right. Indeed, it is in the allusions to his schlocky past that diehards will find the most enjoyment in A Dangerous Method, a truly bizarre film whose humorous undercurrent seems to belie its stiff subject matter: the origins of psychoanalysis.
Based on Christopher Hampton’s 2002 play The Talking Cure (itself based on a 1993 non-fiction book by John Kerr), A Dangerous Method focuses on the relationship between Carl Jung and his young patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). When she arrives at Burghölzli psychiatric hospital in Zurich, Spielrein exhibits textbook symptoms of Freudian hysteria. Like Charcot’s famed case studies (which Knightley researched for the role), her jaw protrudes at unbearable angles, her thin body contorting into impossible shapes – the perfect patient for Jung to trial the experimental new method ‘psychoanalysis’ on. Knightley has copped much derision for her performance, the character’s histrionics so at odds with the pouty, corseted roles for which she is renowned; her Russian accent is more comical than convincing. Spielrein is a Cronenberg heroine of old, much like Raglan’s psychotic ‘star patient Nola (Samantha Eggar), utterly out of place in this period piece of icy hues and static surfaces.
At first glance, A Dangerous Method doesn’t look like a Cronenberg film at all. Recent offerings like Crash (1996), A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) shared similarly cool surfaces, yet these films were still punctuated by ultraviolent showpieces – the puckered scars of car fetishists, a man’s nose punched until it becomes a bloody abyss and a Slavic gangster knifed in the eye. A Dangerous Method painstakingly recreates early twentieth-century Zurich and Vienna, its characters suffocating in the era’s rigid costuming; the crew working from archival materials to reconstruct exact replicas of Freud and Jung’s consultation rooms. Such an exercise in aesthetic restraint stands in stark contrast to Cronenberg’s extravagantly gruesome history. The low-budget horror films for which he earned the ‘Baron of Blood’ title, including Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) The Brood and Scanners (1981), look decidedly B-grade by contemporary standards.
Jung and Freud, however, do fit the mould of the mad doctors and scientists who have so often stood at the helm of Cronenberg’s cinema. From the unseen Dr Luther Stringfellow in Cronenberg’s debut feature Stereo (1969), who endows young volunteers with telepathic abilities at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Enquiry, to Dr Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin), the creator of a sexually transmitted parasite that transforms the residents of a Montreal apartment block into orgiastic zombies in Shivers, to the Mantles in Dead Ringers (1988), twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) obsessed with the genitalia of ‘mutant women’, these men see themselves as visionaries who seek to liberate the mind and body from self-imposed limitations. Like Dr Frankenstein, they’re also maternal figures – they aim to give birth to a ‘new flesh’, but more often than not these monstrous creations bring about their maker’s destruction.
There are clear similarities between the ‘radical treatment’ of psychoanalysis and the fictional therapies that recur throughout Cronenberg’s work. Like Raglan, or any of these mad doctors, psychoanalysis’ architects sought to unearth new levels of human consciousness. Freud’s influence on Cronenberg is alluded to in the film Rabid, when a girl about to undergo plastic surgery because her father thinks she looks too much like him wields a pocket edition of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud; Raglan’s textbook, The Shape of Rage, could easily be a work by the father of psychoanalysis himself. In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg once again addresses psychoanalytic ideas he’s been playing with for his whole career. Those unfamiliar with his work but au fait with the theory may find that the narrative borders on tedium, essentially a rudimentary overview of psychoanalysis’ methods and history.
Through the power of the ‘talking cure’, Jung soon unearths the source of Spielrein’s dysfunction. Predictably, her hysterical symptoms are due to her repression of the ultimate Freudian secret: the desire for the father. When she is forced to articulate her transgressive urges, her hysterical symptoms become the most pronounced. Indeed, Jung is trying to make her speak the unspeakable, her body distorting with the words she dare not utter: not only did her Daddy beat her, she liked it. ‘There’s no hope for me,’ she cries. ‘I’m vile and filthy and corrupt. I must never be let out of here.’ As Jung suspects, however, the act of sharing her secret trauma initiates the healing process and with it the possibility of her freedom; Spielrein even begins studying to become a doctor herself.
Medical experiments have long fascinated Cronenberg, and the practice of psychoanalysis is no different. Jung’s tools are fetishised in the same way that the bizarre gynecological implements wielded by the Mantle twins in Dead Ringers are, or the extravagant pins that protrude from Gabrielle’s (Rosanna Arquette) legs in Crash. When Jung sits his wife down to trial word association, with Spielrein as his assistant, even a psychological experiment becomes ritualistic. He places his wife’s arms on leather pads, winds levers and flicks switches, setting in motion cogs, lights, mirrors, spinning weights and a drawing device apparently monitoring her pulse; her responses are measured with timers and scales. Psychoanalysis is conceived of as an historical oddity, an archaic form of medical experimentation.
Like all of Cronenberg’s mad doctors, Jung’s creations will bring about his downfall. When Freud sends Dr Otto Grosz (Vincent Cassel) to his protégé for analysis, Grosz, a drug-addicted libertine, proves to be more of an influence on Jung. A card-carrying polygamist, Grosz encourages Jung to begin an affair with his young patient. ‘It seems to be the measure of the true perversity of the human race that one of its very few lively pleasurable activities should be the subject of so much hysteria and repression,’ Grosz muses.
Following Grosz’s advice, Jung soon begins a sexual relationship with Spielrein. In a textbook case of transference and countertransference (where a patient projects their unconscious desires onto their analyst and vice versa), it allows Spielrein to enact her darkest Oedipal fantasies while forcing Jung to acknowledge the perversity he’s been harbouring all along. Jung enacts the humiliations that Spielrein longed for from her father, throwing her into fits of ecstatic pleasure as hammy as her hysteria. Much like their therapy sessions, he lurks behind her during these rituals in a kind of sadomasochistic subversion of the doctor–patient dynamic. But despite these titillating rejections of repression, everything about the affair remains controlled – they never remove their clothes, bar Spielrein’s perky bosom occasionally escaping her corset.
Jung’s relationship with Spielrein not only fulfils her Oedipal desires but affronts his own father figure, Freud. Mortensen’s Freud is the archetypal overbearing father, shown with the phallic cigar drooping from his lip in every scene. The analysts’ conversation is often shot with the same rigid framing as Jung and Spielrein, their relationship sharing a similar power dynamic to that of patient and doctor. But when Jung begins to find fault with Freud’s theories, refusing the assumption that everything is of a sexual nature (he agrees with Grosz that ‘Freud’s obsession with sex probably has a great deal to do with the fact that he never gets any’), Freud dismisses Jung’s deviations from his method as ‘myticism’. Jung and Spielrein’s affair proves the final straw in the analysts’ estrangement.
Despite the film’s veneer of repression, the horrors that lie just beyond the screen are as shocking as anything in Cronenberg’s oeuvre. When Spielrein visits Jung at the end of the film, pregnant and an established analyst herself, Jung tells her of his ‘apocalyptic dream’ – an avalanche of bodies, blood soaking the pure white snow of the Alps – a clear premonition of the horrors of World War I. The coda that notifies us of Spielrein’s death, executed alongside her two children by Nazi officers during World War II, prompts imaginings as gruesome as anything conjured by Cronenberg’s mind. A final slight to the father, these visions (which Jung was said to have in the months leading up to the war’s outbreak) undermine Freud’s theory of dreams, indicating not sexual repression but rather a premonition of the impending chaos set to envelop the world.
Cronenberg’s cinema acts much like ‘the talking cure’ – a return of the repressed, in which the images he places on screen speak the unspeakable. In exploring the birth of psychoanalysis, he addresses many of the concepts that have plagued him throughout his career: Freud’s advice to Jung to ‘give up any idea of trying to cure them’ could easily be Cronenberg’s own, so resigned is he to the innateness of human perversity. Ironically, it is through acknowledging these ideas directly that he delivers his most restrained film to date.
If you’re seeking well-rounded characters or a nuanced narrative, you’ll not find it in A Dangerous Method. It is a horror film divested of its bloody tropes, stripped of the exaggerated aesthetics that give context to its overblown characters. A Dangerous Method may not be Cronenberg’s best work, but there is still much deviant delight to be found here.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.